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A bridge to Gullah culture

By Margo Harakas
Staff Writer

January 31, 2004

Marquetta L. Goodwine moves easily between two worlds. College-educated, she was raised in the relatively isolated setting of St. Helena, an island off South Carolina with a distinctive African-American culture.

It's a place where people still speak a centuries-old mix of African tongues, Elizabethan English and French, where flat-bottomed, wood boats, fishing nets and sweet grass baskets are still handcrafted, and where successive generations of families still live within the same compound.

Not until she visited New York City as a child and heard absurd talk about the language and the customs of her people did she realize how different was the Gullah/Geechee Nation and how distortedly it was viewed by others.

Today, this author/historian travels the world telling the story of her people and their struggle for cultural survival.

On Monday, Goodwine will bring her histo-musical presentation to the downtown Fort Lauderdale campus of Florida Atlantic University.

She'll tell how the ancestors of the Gullah/Geechee were brought here from West Africa in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and how their roots were kept alive in music, stories, praise houses, communal clustering of homes, and a language that evolved as they were extracted from their homelands in Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Senegal and Angola.

She'll speak Gullah and Geechee, and explain that "Gullah [unlike Geechee] is not a dialect. The syntax of Gullah is African."

Geechee, she'll explain, is most spoken from Savannah southward. "It's a bridge language. It came from Gullah people trying to form a bridge between themselves and the people who spoke English."

The whites thought the blacks simply couldn't learn English, she says. "They misunderstood our bilingualism or trilingualism. It's taken a lot of academic work and spiritual fortitude to keep our culture, and be able to code switch, to speak the Gullah language, and go into the marketplace of the world and articulate English."

She'll also warn that this sacred past is threatened with extinction.

"The issues we're dealing with are not just historic preservation, but cultural continuum and human rights," she explains by phone from her home on St. Helena, in Buford County. "A primary focus in my daily work is having people recognize our right to self determination."

It's a pitch she has made to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, to South Carolina state legislators, to members of Congress, and in lectures and workshops here and abroad.

As the official spokeswoman and first "selected, elected and enstooled ... first queen mother" of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, Goodwine is known these days as Queen Quet.

Her constituency is the estimated 200,000 to 750,000 slave descendants whose ancestral homes occupy the Sea Islands that stretch from Jacksonville, N.C., to Jacksonville, Fla., and the coastline for 30 to 35 miles inland.

For generations, they've survived primarily by fishing and farming. But resort development, soaring taxes and a dwindling economy, says Queen Quet, threaten not only the continuation of the communities, but the culture itself.

"We were pretty much isolated until 1950," says Queen Quet. "Most of the Sea Islands didn't have bridges, that's why we remained isolated and insulated from non-Gullah people."

Once bridges were built, outsiders flooded in, mostly as tourists. "Not till the '70s did they start wanting to live here.

"Whites saw this as a kind of paradise. Coming here was like going to the Bahamas."

Hotels, gated communities, golf courses, docks and all their attendant problems began to transform the landscape.

Though her degrees from Fordham and Columbia universities are in computer science and mathematics, Goodwine's mission has made her a world educator. She's written books on the subject, among them The Legacy of Ibo Landing: Gullah Roots of African American Culture. She's served as consultant on Gullah culture for documentaries and films, including Mel Gibson's The Patriot. And she's co-founder and chancellor of the International University of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, established on St. Helena in 2002.

Her own connection with the islands was laid down by ancestors, maternal and paternal, who arrived in the 1700s. They came as slaves, but by virtue of a federal auction of white abandoned lands in 1862, they became landowners. (That was the year the country's first school for freed slaves was established on the island. Penn Center is part of the island's National Landmark District.)

"A lot of people are not aware the Gullah/Geechees were the first large body of official landowners of African descent in what we now call America. This happened before the Emancipation Proclamation."

Apparently, no laws prohibited slave ownership of land. "Also, you can't technically say they were slaves. The slave owners weren't here," says Queen Quet. "We were known as contraband, until later when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Then we became freedmen."

Everywhere on St. Helena, from the crop lands to the marsh lands, spiritual remnants of the earliest African inhabitants remain. Even the physical layout of the community is a direct carryover. "We live in a family compound setting. All houses are placed in a circle with the house of the oldest member of the family in the center." Expanding outward are the homes of the children, and beyond that the residences of the grandchildren.

Sometimes, however, the legacy is less obvious and demands additional knowledge.

"I still do quilts by hand," says Queen Quet. "The quilting done here is similar to kinte cloth and other African woven cloth. You'll see the lines not lined up evenly. That is because spiritually we consider evil to travel along straight lines."

Similarly, says Queen Quet, "When we used to do wallpapering in traditional houses, we wallpapered with newspaper, but you'd never line up the edges or seams."

No one ever explained why, but she remembers as a child the elders saying, "Ain't good to put the seam together."

Queen Quet hopes by familiarizing the outside world to the ways of her people, federal and state recognition will follow that will end the cultural erosion.

Specifically, she'd like Gullah/Geechee communities declared national heritage areas. Then she'd like to see growth management plans adopted and federal money spent to maintain the infrastructures and support the communities' economic programs.

"Enough is enough," she says, of what she sees as a needless crisis of identity. And time is running out. "You can accept certain aspects of modernity without losing who you are."

Copyright Ā 2004, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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